The Genius of Mental Illness


There are great gaps in humans’ understanding of the brain. Even where science has come up with a discovery about a certain part of the brain, there are further scientists who argue that, until we know more about those other realms of the brain which are still a mystery, we have discovered nothing; mere random notes in a symphony which we still cannot hear, or even start to imagine, without seeing many more notes and deciphering their key.

Such ignorance means we cannot yet properly define intelligence either.

We often turn to the life’s work of a Mozart or Newton to qualify genius but pity their often tortured experiences on this earth, with some historical commentators describing both their agony and virtuoso as mere symptoms of mental illness. Given the stigma of the term mental illness, many balk at its association with the beauty of Die Zauberflöte and the braininess of the Orbital Cannon.

Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae – there is no one great ability without a mixture of madness (Seneca).

Mentally ill is a tag used by many for many in today’s society. Yet, since we still know so little about the brain, how can we determine who precisely the mentally ill are? Is not much mental illness a temporary oscillation from which most, at some time, somehow, recover equilibrium?

If we one day learn everything about the labyrinth that is the human brain, will we not face danger? Become mere drones, where genetics and medication, then evolution, eventually smooth the edges of the human psyche? Where all intrigue and invention – for which Sir Isaac Newton and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suffered so much pain – will vanish under the illusion of improvement to leave mere sheeple? Just as the parameters of homosexuality seem to be broadening to encompass the whole population on a gay spectrum in flux, why not consider all of us for being somewhat mentally ill on a mind wellness spectrum, also in flux?

A question I would love to have answered but know that, for now, no competent answer exists, is how does someone behave who’s not mentally ill?

It’s obvious there needs to be access to medication for the mentally ill who are unbearable in their mental oscillations and who create significant menace and danger for other citizens – the extremely antisocial bi-polars, the dangerous psychotics and those who conduct themselves in violent ways. Agree?

Then why do we not prescribe medication to paedophiles, rapists, Islamist crazies, stalkers, trolls and murderers too?

It’s also obvious nowadays that those suffering pain from mental illness, particularly depression, merit treatment and medication from the health service. It is not their fault they are the 1 in 4 of the UK population suffering from mental illness of some kind. Agree?

Then why do we not prescribe medication as a matter of course to the grieving, the bullied, those recently broken up and the lonely?

My point – as someone who went through a sore but enriching brain rewiring process myself that lasted over a decade after my brain was crushed against the sides of my skull thanks to a Japanese mosquito – is that none of us are always perfectly mentally healthy as no norm exists and brains are in a state of permanent flux. We are all, to some degree or other, likely to oscillate in brain wellness during a lifetime.

Just as the brain is currently unpredictable, so the future is unpredictable and the present is often hidden. Sir Stephen Hawking may develop Alzheimer’s. A civil servant considered as dull as ditch water by colleagues – the personification of perfect sanity – may dress up as Spiderman and walk the rooftops of Balham in search of pigeons to serenade by night. How are we supposed to know let alone judge the hidden and unpredictable?

Judging mental illness is a thankless task yet we must somehow judge it and recognise it as ubiquitous or we let ourselves down as a society. In all cases the judging should be undertaken with moderation as well as great empathy. Judging mental illness should be performed with a measure of humility – the judge knowing they may soon become the judged. A second and third opinion should be sought.

For there really is no normal or perfect brain out there; we judge societal norms by parameters which are still far too subjective for science against a backcloth of brain ignorance. So, let’s be honest and charitable – let’s start out admitting it’s 4 out of 4 and not 1 in 4 who are somewhat mentally ill.

Only then can we attack the stigma that prevents those proud people in pain agreeing to counselling and popping a pill. Only then can we get out of the them and us mindset. Only then can we celebrate and preserve the edges of often unknown yet positive realms in our brains that carve our futures and drive creativity and progress. Without which we’d be slugs, or amoeba, or trapped in a dystopia of grey, Soviet proportions – unable to spark genius or envisage human freedom.


4 thoughts on “The Genius of Mental Illness

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking. I question the stigma part a little. In my experience I see the fear on the part of those exposed to someone with a mental illness. They don’t know what to do. For some that means flight, for others, denial. That fear is seen by the sufferer and causes them to shy away from admitting they need help. Still, whatever we call it, it is surely a vicious circle.

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